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The contested 3% conviction rate for rape in Scotland – what is the real story?

Recent weeks have seen public figures such as the Justice Secretary and the Solicitor General describing the often quoted 3% conviction rate for rape as misleading and untrue. An alternative and significantly higher figure of 33% is quoted instead. Who is right?

The 3% conviction rate measures the proportion of rapes reported to the police which lead to a conviction. The figure is derived from the Scottish Government’s two statistical bulletins – Recorded Crime in Scotland and Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts. The 3% conviction rate is calculated by taking the number of reported rapes (for 2008-2009), which was 821, and the number of convictions – 25 – and working out the percentage between these figures – 3%. Most reported rapes don’t lead to a prosecution – from the Scottish Government’s own figures only 10.1% lead to a prosecution. This means that the vast majority of rapes reported to the police in Scotland do not reach court.

It is important, however, to give two health warnings on these figures: firstly, the figures in the two statistical bulletins from which the 3% conviction rate is derived measure slightly different things: the police statistics in the Recorded Crime bulletin measure by offence whereas the court statistics in the Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts bulletin measure by offender. In some circumstances one offender will be responsible for more than one offence, so in this sense the two sets of figures are not directly comparable. Secondly, court statistics are recorded by main offence, so in cases where rape is not the main offence, i.e. where the main offence is murder, a conviction will not be included in the overall number of rape convictions. Although the latter scenario does not cover many rape related offences in Scotland (we do not have significant numbers of joint murder & rape cases each year in Scotland) it is clear that these do represent genuine caveats to the reliability of the 3% figure. However, there is no other source of data available which tells us how many rapes reported to the police lead to a conviction.

The Scottish Government and the Crown Office, when challenging the 3% conviction rate, assert that 33% of rapes indicted to court lead to a conviction. It is crucial to note here that they are not comparing like with like, in that they are taking as their starting point cases indicted to court, not cases reported to the police. That is not to say it is not a valid figure, but it is talking about something completely different. It is important to bear in mind here that only around 10% of cases reported to the police ever reach court – what the 33% conviction rate figure is referring to is what happens to small proportion of cases which reach court, not what happens to all reported rapes.

Why does this matter? The rape crisis movement has at times been criticized for highlighting the very low level of rapes reported to the police which lead to a conviction. Concern has been expressed that focusing on this conviction rate will deter rape survivors from coming forward and reporting their experience. It is important to acknowledge the significant progress that has been made by the Crown Office in how rape is prosecuted, including the introduction of the National Sex Crimes Unit and specialist teams within the fiscal service across the country. It is to be hoped that these positive changes will lead to an increase in our conviction rate, or at the very least an improvement in survivors’ experience of the justice system.

Rape Crisis Scotland believes however that to focus only on what happens to cases which are indicted for court misses entirely the experiences of the vast majority of survivors reporting rape in our country. Is it really of no consequence that around 90% of those reporting rape will never see their case reach court? Is this not a matter of concern which we must focus our attention on? Or do we really think its ok to just write off the vast majority of reported rapes as unprosecutable? Does this not signal something wrong with our justice system if this is the case?

A final question: how can it be after decades of concern about legal responses to rape that we can’t even reliably give the most basic data of how many complaints of rape lead to a conviction?

Staff and volunteers at The Young Women’s Movement co-ordinated SYWS after realising that there was a gap in research broken down by age, gender and geography. The report was researched, written and produced by young women, following a series of face-to-face interviews with over 60 participants between the ages of 16 and 30 by Edinburgh-based social researchers The Lines Between.

The report is structured around themes which came out of these discussions, as young women considered the ways in which gender affects their lives. Many of the younger participants described feelings of confusion, pressure and discomfort around sexual identities and behaviour. In these discussions the influence of social media was frequently mentioned, with several young women suggesting that social media presents challenges that they don’t know how to deal with.

“There’s a pressure to be ’sexy’ and I did some of that, despite feeling uncomfortable; posting sexual pictures of myself anonymously. The pressure came from my female friends mostly, because we thought boys would find it sexy. It was almost a competition.”

“I think it’s got worse; there’s so much porn everywhere that young women start to think that’s how you’re supposed to act.”

Several young women said that during teenage years there are clear differences in experiences, based on gender.

“Just imagine a 14-year-old boy walking down the street and being honked at by some 20-something girls driving along.”

“I started having troubling experiences – feeling self-conscious, getting comments about my body younger than my peers because I was one of the first in the class to develop – I was 11.”

Some talked about the influence of celebrities and magazines in terms of normalising sexual images of young women.

“It’s like they’re selling the woman not the product, it’s dehumanising. Are we supposed to copy it? ... I don’t see myself represented in any of these images.

“There’s also more pressure in teenage relationships for girls to be sexually available and behave in certain ways. All the magazines talk about is how to be a good girlfriend and how to get a man.”

“It is really interesting when you think about how things have changed. Before, women weren’t allowed to be sexual; they were supposed to be demure and virtuous and those qualities were praised – society punished them and made them pariahs if they were sexual. Now, it’s all about being sexual, we’re pushed into it but there are still certain invisible parameters – cross them and you’re punished for that too; called a slut or a slag. It’s like there’s ‘just the right amount of sexy’ and women don’t get to decide how much that is.”



Violence against women was mentioned in many discussions, with participants noting the everyday safety concerns which affect their lives.

“No matter what I wear, I can’t remember the last time I left the house without having men harass me on the street. For example I was walking to the doctor in jeans and a t-shirt, and counted nine different times of men bothering me – honking the car horn, shouting degrading stuff and racial stuff too. I ended up phoning my mum because I was upset.”

“On the street there are countless seemingly unthreatening comments like ‘cheer up darling, give me a smile’ but these are patronising and a little threatening. I think, would you say that to me if my husband were here? Women are not here to decorate your world.”

These participants also said that the fear of violence affected their behaviour or the decisions their parents made about the amount of freedom they could enjoy.

“My brother is younger than me but he’s allowed to stay out much later and to make his own way home. My parents say the different rules are for my own safety.”

“There are subtle differences for women. For example there was an attack in The Meadows [Edinburgh] and all the guidance and recommendations from the police etc. was aimed at girls, asking them to change their behaviour. It’s this focus on the victim not the perpetrator, couched in ‘it’s for your own safety’.”

“I’ve always tried to object to gender discrimination, I signed ’No More Page 3’, but in my personal life it’s much harder... you end up tolerating much more than you’d like to admit.”

SYWS offers a platform for young women to talk about the issues that concern them, the effect of gender inequality upon their lives, and what they would like the future to hold. It’s the first time that research of this kind has been done, and the voices in the report provide a moving and powerful image of life for young women in Scotland.

In her foreword to the report, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says ‘Research such as the Status of Young Women in Scotland is important as it shines a light on the issues still facing young women in Scotland and where we must do more to make sure they can maximise their potential’. We hope that this report will be used by politicians, organisations and individuals as a tool for change.

Ceris Aston, YWCA Scotland

Read the report online here: http://www.ywcascotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Status-of-Young-Women-In-Scotland.pdf

Website: www.ywcascotland.org

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @youngwomenscot

Hashtag: #SYWS


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